Barbara Zygiel




Barbara Zygiel




Barbara Zygiel


Ruth Duncan

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Moda Fabrics


Alexandria, Virginia


Ruth Duncan


Ruth Duncan (RD): This recording is being made for the Alliance of American Quilts' Quilters' S.O.S. - Quilters' Save Our Stories project [it is Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories.]. The number for our interview, which is with Barbara Zygiel today, is #VA22302.008. As I said, Barbara Zygiel is our interviewee. Ruth Duncan is again pretending to be an interviewer. Our Scribe is Evelyn Salinger. We are meeting at Barbara's home in Alexandria. To start with, Barbara, where are you from originally?

Barbara Zygiel (BZ): I was born in Anderson, Indiana. My parents were both from Indiana, but my mother's family were originally from Georgia. You wouldn't know it to look at me but I am 1/64th Cherokee Indian. [laughs.]

RD: My!

BZ: I--at 6 moved to Utica, Michigan. That's where I grew up. Went to college at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan. Met my husband. Got married. Two months after we got married, we moved to the Washington, D.C. area, to Alexandria. That was in 1975. Been in our current house since 1980.

RD: When and/or how did you get interested in quilting?

BZ: Always, there were quilts in our house. My mother's mother made quilts but I never saw her make them. And I think my father's grandmother had made quilts, too, which were in the house. My mother's sister had made her a wedding gift of a beautiful velvet crazy quilt. This was in 1945, when crazy quilts weren't in style anymore but I just--so I always grew up with quilts in the home, sleeping under quilts. And I always loved to sew. When I was in high school, I made all my own clothes. That's when we had to wear dresses so women needed a lot of dresses back then. Then, when I was 18, it was 1971. I had finished high school, waiting for college to start, and I hadn't started working yet. And I was bored. So I thought, 'I'll make a quilt. How hard can it be?' [laughter.] This was where there were no classes. There were no books. Everybody knew what a quilt was but nobody really knew how to make one so I just started and I made up a pattern. Later, I found out the pattern was called Nine Patch. [laughter.] The world's simplest pattern. And I made it from scraps that were just around. Each block had a print and a solid because back then you didn't put prints together so I finished the quilt top. And I made this by machine. And I tore the pieces, because I didn't know it'd be easier to cut them. And after I finished the top, I made--before I quilted it, I made another quilt for my ballet teacher who was having a baby. And I thought, 'Gee, this would be a lot easier if I put the lines on it.' So that's when I learned how to use templates, how to put the sewing line on the back of the piece and that one also was made by machine. I bought a quilt frame from Sears and quilted it with the stab stitch because I couldn't use a thimble and nobody told me that wasn't the way you were supposed to do it. Then I also made another quilt top, while I was in college. Then, right after college, I got married, moved here, and then I set to quilting them. The first one, the Nine Patch, I did stab stitch and then shortly after that I joined a quilt group at the Martha Washington Library [6614 Fort Hunt Road, Alexandria, Virginia.] and that's when I learned to really quilt- to quilt with a thimble, to quilt using the running stitch and I got enough confidence to try to hand piece.

RD: Did you--do you remember any of the names of the people who were in that Martha Washington group?

BZ: Sharon Holmes, who has remained a lifelong quilting friend of mine. Jane Johnston.

RD: That Jane Johnston that's Shirley Shelley's sister [-in-law]?

BZ: Yes, Jane Johnston. And Cleona Rowan. There were a couple more I can't remember. It's been a long time.

RD: I know it's been a long time.

BZ: That was '77. And we met at the library--I think every other Thursday. During the night. Jane was a member of that, and she was also a member of Cardinal Quilters so she told us about Cardinal Quilters. Then in '78, I think it was, was the Quilt Congress. And I went to the Quilt Congress [Continental Quilting Congress was held in hotels in Arlington and Crystal City, Viriginia several times starting about 1978. these were run by Hazel Carter, the founder of Quilters Unlimited.] and there I met Beth Ford, who was the founder of the Cardinal Quilters. And through Jane and Beth, I went first as a guest to Cardinal Quilters and--it was an odd situation for me because I think when I joined I was 25 years old. And at that time, I was the only member under 50 so I was hanging out with women a complete generation ahead of me.

RD: Yes.

BZ: But I think it was so good for me. And I got to be comfortable with people of all ages and it all really helped later, when I went to teach. So I was not a founder of Cardinal Quilters but I was there in the early years.

RD: Oh. It's hard to know at this point which way to go first. I guess I'll ask first about what's your favorite part of a quilting project.

BZ: Well, before my back went, I loved to quilt the most. [laughs.] But now it's physically hard to quilt. I still do it, but not as much. Not as long every day. Right now, my favorite part is hand piecing and working with colors.

RD: And your least favorite part?

BZ: Basting!

RD: Ah!

BZ: Because of the back. I find the hardest is figuring out how to quilt it. Planning the design that will be fun to do, but enhance the quilt that's the hardest but I manage to do it.

RD: And what do you do with your finished quilts?

BZ: Some I give away, but most of them I just keep. They're in a pile in my sewing room and it just keeps getting higher. I figure when I'm dead, they'll figure out what to do with them.

RD: Obviously, you're a finisher.

BZ: Yes, but I don't start everything with great success. I believe: If it's not working, get rid of it. And so a lot of charities have benefited from my poor taste.

RD: Well, [laughs.] from the things I've seen of your charity--charity output, it's not that bad taste! Things you've given for charity have been very fine.

BZ: But I truly believe your needlework should make you happy.

RD: Yes.

BZ: And, a lot of people have unfinished objects and they feel so guilty about it. Well, don't feel guilty, be happy. Get them out of the home. You know. If nothing else, throw them away if there's no other solution, because I'm thrifty, but I'm not crazy.

RD: Makes a bunch of sense. OK. You mentioned teaching. Tell us about your teaching.

BZ: In 1982, I began working at a quilt shop in Georgetown called Nanny's Attic. It was through Penny Rigdon I got the job. Rae Koch, who worked at the Old Stone House in Georgetown, was a friend of Penny's. The owners of the shop contacted Rae. Rae contacted Penny. Penny called me up. So I went to work at Nanny's Attic. They were just starting out. They were—quilt enthusiasts—but not quilt experts. So I was by then a quilt expert. They originally had other teachers, but they got me into teaching. At one point, I was teaching everything. Beginners. Advanced. Vests. Christmas. So I started there. They only lasted about two years. Went out of business. After that, I started traveling more and for a couple of years just taught at seminars and that kind of thing. Then in '86, Madeline Shepperson opened up Quilt N Stuff. I got in touch with her and I was her first employee. Then again, I taught everything. And I found it didn't work so well to be the teacher and the clerk. Because my students were coming in all day, wanting lessons and I was supposed to be doing the retail part. So I got my friend Sharon my job as the clerk, and went only into teaching. And I taught there until '94. Taught Beginning until '94, at which point Madeline said she wanted some changes in the Beginning quilting. I understood her rationale and I thought her changes were reasonable, but I did not want to do them, so I suggested that she get another Beginning teacher. And after that, I still taught about once a year-- appliqué class for about four years after that. And I would still be doing that, but she got somebody else to do it. Somebody who was more to her liking, or whatever. And that's okay with me. So since then, I've taught quilting very seldom. Just an occasional lecture.

RD: What about publishing?

BZ: I published my first article in 1979 in Quilt World Omni Book, a magazine that's not around any more, and it was on quilt superstitions. And I've published since then, probably about three dozen things. Some I've written, some I just send in the picture and they draw the design from it. And publishing has been fun, but you do lose control. I've had things that they wrote the directions for and they put errors in and things like that.

RD: I know that you're a very precise quilter, so the idea of errors being put in your work is truly offensive.

BZ: Yes, it is. [laughs.] The worst one was in the Patchwork Patter, when Art Saleme was the editor for awhile. Penny asked me to write an article about this little pincushion I had made, which was a miniature basket pattern. Back then, there weren't too many miniatures being made, so it was a novelty. So I wrote this, what I thought was a scholarly article, about my Sewing Basket Basket, they called it. And he completely rewrote the article to make it extremely 'cute.' And I was mortified, because I don't write 'cute.' [laughs.] I don't think anyone noticed it, but it--I haven't written for the Patchwork Patter since then.

RD: Okay. Next, I want to ask--it's okay to be upfront about this--what about the stash?

BZ: Oh. Well. I'm not a fabriholic. And I try to buy things with a purpose. But sometimes my purpose is: I don't have enough orange, so I'm going to buy this orange. And I have quite a lot and I do weed it out regularly because tastes change, styles change. 'What was I thinking?' And I have a good place for these things to go: The Lincolnia Senior Center makes hospital dolls for children. So every year, I weed out and give them the things I don't think I can use any more.

RD: Okay. Do you have--you did hold office in Cardinals a time or two did you not?

BZ: I've been secretary, I think four times. And I was the Vice President under Beth Ford's second administration. And I was the Scrapbook and the Sunshine but I've never been President. Despite pleas.

RD: Yes, I can imagine. [laughter.] I believe I've been one of the plea-ers at times. Now we'll get into your other quilt-oriented activities. Tell us about your prize quilts.

BZ: Well, I won my first ribbon in '79 at the NQA [National Quilting Association.] show in Greenbelt, Maryland, which was for a pillow. And since then, I've won a couple ribbons every year. Some blue ribbons—some lower. Sometimes I enter and I don't win anything. One time I did win a Best of Show, which was not for a quilt, but for a quilted petticoat, at the Belle Grove show in 1982. And I thought, 'Oh, this is the beginning of my dynasty.' Of course, it was not. I keep making quilts that please me but they don't please the judges. So I figure a hundred years from now, people are going to be amazed at my quilts but I don't think I get much appreciation for them nowadays. People like them but judges don't.

RD: I wonder why. I like them.

BZ: I think it's because they're too traditional. And I hate to cast aspersions on the judges but I think a lot of times they don't get it. They like neon signs and my things are tiny jewels. First I have to please myself. You know, I would never say, 'I'm going to make this quilt to get a blue ribbon,' and be untrue to myself.

RD: Now tell us about your other sewing activities, and your crafts, or arts.

BZ: One thing I didn't talk about earlier was the teacher certification. In '86, when I started teaching for Madeline, I thought this was the time to do my certification. And I did it in about six months, I think. You did all the paperwork in about three months and got that accepted. And then you have to give an oral presentation. I did my oral presentation two weeks after I had my tonsils out at age 34 so everyone asked me if I could talk. I could talk fine. I couldn't stand up, hardly. [laughs.] So I passed even though I was still under anesthetic, I think. And it was a big boost for me. It helped a lot in my traveling teaching--teaching at seminars. And I still--even though I hardly teach at all--I do maintain my certification, because I worked very hard for it. And I think it's a special thing. There's only two certified teachers in Virginia. And I think there's about a hundred in the whole country so it's a special honor. I get emails frequently from people wanting me to teach just because I'm a certified teacher because I don't teach much any more, I do refuse most of those.

RD: You're certified with the NQA, then.

BZ: National Quilting Association, yes. Okay. My other quilting activities or sewing activities. I like to make miniature quilts. Some people think I'm only a miniature quilter. But, no, I make big quilts, too. Miniature is a side line. I also belong to a smocking club even though I'm not much of a smocker. I do like to embroider. And I like the old designs from the Twenties and Thirties. And you know, Monday washing, Tuesday ironing, that kind of thing. And I also make doll clothes. I started making doll clothes in 1984 because I'm a hand quilter and a hand quilter has to delay gratification. Usually, it takes me 14 to 16 months to make a full-sized quilt. And I don't mind. It's worth it. I enjoy the process and I like long-term projects, because I like having something fun to work on for a long time. On the other hand, there are some times when you like to have an idea, design it, work on it, finish it—in a few days. I started to make doll clothes. I try to make very classic doll clothes that 20 years from now aren't going to seem outdated. And that's where I do my smocking, my heirloom sewing.

RD: Now we haven't got your quilt out to show us.

BZ: This is the 8-pointed star, full size quilt. The blocks are 4 1/8" square and there's about 400 blocks in the quilt.

RD: You did 4 1/8" on purpose.

BZ: Yes. That's what the template turned out to be. It's based on a 1 ¼" square, 1 ¼" diamond, 1 ¼" triangle. I used that size because that's what showed off the fabric the best. Smaller than that, was too small to show the motifs in the Thirties-style fabrics and I like to do as small as I can with the designs still showing up. I picked this quilt because I think it's typical of my work. It's a full-sized quilt, but the pieces are very small. There are many blocks in it. It's a scrap quilt, which I enjoy making. It has, I think, about 250 different fabrics in it, and it's very intricate. The points are all pointy and all match, which I think is one of the things I'm known for.

RD: Yes. You are known for your precision work. And But even though I'm known for precision, my goal when I make a quilt like this is to make it look effortless even though it was a tremendous effort. I hope when people see it, they go: Oh, what fun. Oh, here's a cow, here's a teddy bear. They don't say, Oh, the hours.

RD: Yes. And I see that you have fussy-cut.

BZ: Oh, I fussy-cut everything.

RD: Because there are little things centered in the squares.

BZ: Once I was at a seminar and I believe, literally, I was the only woman there who had not had carpal tunnel! And I think this has to be because I almost never do rotary cutting. And, you know, the older I get, the harder it is on my hand, to cut with the scissors. But you space it out, you do what you have to do. You live with the pain. To me, rotary cutting, and following the chart, and you know A to B. Cut 47 of these. That is torture. That is not fun. That is paint by number. I can look at a quilt design and figure out how to make it traditionally with no effort.

RD: And your quilts are always feasts, because there are the little doggies in the corner, and the elephants and the bunnies and the little children--

BZ: Well, my goal was to make it colorful and use these childish fabrics, but make it appropriate that an adult could use it, too so I hope it's not super-cute. You know.

RD: It's not insulting to an adult.

BZ: But then again, I think this would be a good quilt for a sick child because there's so much to see on it.

RD: It's wonderful. It's wonderful. How big is it?

BZ: Oh, it's double-bed size. I'd have to measure it to know exactly.

RD: Just gorgeous. And with an appropriate, like, back.

BZ: That's not easy to find all the time.

RD: No. No. The back has fruit on it, but it's gold on white.

BZ: I made this two years ago.

RD: So, that's 2002? 2001? Let's look at the tag.

BZ: 2002.

RD: So, obviously, you label your work--

BZ: Oh, yes.

RD: In big letters.

BZ: Well, sometimes big, sometimes small. I don't want to make the historians' work too easy for them.

RD: That's--[laughs.] I like your thinking.

BZ: But I do like to sign--as the artist I'm entitled to sign my work.

RD: Absolutely.

BZ: And in the future, a work that is signed and dated is more valuable. Why shouldn't I put as much value as I can into my work?

RD: Now, we'll make a big paragraph here. What do you think makes a quilt great?

BZ: Probably the first thing is color. And I think color can be learned, but after you learn, you are using your intuition. If you are looking at a color wheel and selecting your colors because of that, it's not going to work. I think a lot of people get into needlework because they love color.

RD: Yes.

BZ: You know, they're buying floss, they're buying fabric, they're buying yarn just because the color appeals to them so. After I had surgery last summer and I was stuck at home recuperating, I said to my husband, 'You've got to get me out.I'm so hungry for color.' [laughs.]

RD: I can understand that.

BZ: And after that, I think the workmanship. It's unfashionable to say this, but I believe that the best machine quilting is still not as good as hand quilting and hand piecing. There's a lot of quilts being made. And I think the goal of the quilter should not be: make it fast. Their goal should be: make it beautiful. If I only make 35 quilts in my lifetime, I'd rather make 35 beautiful quilts than 150 average ones.

RD: That's a good answer. What do you think is the meaning of quilts for women in American life then and now? Is there a difference?

BZ: I think back in like the Thirties, quilts were quite a community thing. And that's why I ask myself, 'Why are there so many double wedding ring quilts?' It's not that easy. And I've come to the conclusion that if your friend is making it, you're probably going to want to make it, too. You know, if all your friends were making it, you're going to do it, too. That was more common in the old days. Nowadays, there are still many quilting communities, and I belong to them, myself, but I think quilting is more individual, nowadays. A lot of people who make quote 'art quilts' think they are expressing themselves through their quilts and they certainly are but I am also expressing myself through my quilt. And like any kind of art if you have to explain it, it doesn't work. I'm prejudiced, here. [laughs.]

RD: Well, you're a dyed-in-the-wool traditionalist, there's no question of that!

BZ: But I hope I can give a modern twist to my tradition. You know, I've thought about this, Why do I made this intricate, very precise type of quilts? But it's the way I am. Why do I bake instead of slapdash, skillet meals? It's because I like the measuring. I like putting things together precisely. Why did I take ballet for 20 years? I like the precision, the line, the discipline. That's just the way I'm wired.

RD: You mentioned other quilt groups, but you haven't said which ones. I know you're a Cardinal--

BZ: Yes. I belong to the Quilters Unlimited Mount Vernon chapter. And I joined them in 1994, after I quit teaching a great deal. I didn't--even though they are literally in walking distance I did not join them before, because I was afraid they would expect me to teach for free. And I was at that time I was making my living by quilting and I did not want to offer myself free. But after I quit teaching, I had more time. I did decide to join them. And I'm kind of a person who's along for the ride? I sit in the back. I enjoy things. I show my stuff but I'm not there to show off which I could, if I wanted to but I don't want to. [laughs.] I enjoy the women and some people are more, 'We gotta do more. We gotta have more lessons.' Well, some groups are more process and some are more social. I think this [QU.] is a more social group, and that's okay, too. Gets me out of the house.

RD: Yes.

BZ: And I do belong to the smocking group, Alexandria Fine Stitchers. I'm the worst smocker and their longest-time member. [laughter.]

RD: Oh, gee. That's hard. Is there anything else? Except that I think that I did not say that today is January 28 and we started at about 11:20 a.m. [laughter.] I forgot to say that, earlier. But is there anything else?

BZ: Well, if you truly want my story, you have to talk about my illness. Because it's been such an influence on how I was able to live. I didn't know I was sick until I was 33, when I started having chronic pain. But I've always been sick, because I was born with a neurological disorder. By the time I got married, I knew I was different from other women, because I just didn't spread as far. I tried to have an office career, because this was the flowering of feminism, and I was any man's equal and should support my family as well as my husband. But being in an office every day was absolute torture to me. Not only because it was so exhausting, it's because I couldn't quilt because I'm not a person who could quilt in the night time and work during the day. I don't have as much energy. And when it came time to think about having children, I knew I was not up to it. So I—we decided not to have children, just for that reason. Not that I don't like children, or wish I could have had a family, but I just knew I wasn't up to it. And then, when I was 33, I started having the chronic pain. Two years later, I was diagnosed with Arnold Chiari Malformation. Which is a relief, to have a diagnosis, but it's what they call an interminable illness that it won't kill you but it will never go away. As the years have gone on, I've had less and less energy so I've narrowed my life to where I have time to quilt and take care of my house and be a wife to my husband, but that's about it. There's not much more in my life and so, no career, no children, no traveling. If you're stuck at home, you'd better have something there that you love doing! And I'm a quilter because I have to. I don't know why. Why aren't I, you know, a sculptor, or an artist, or something. It just picked me, I didn't pick it. And if I can't quilt, I'm sad. Since I have no children, my quilts are what I am leaving after me so I'm not that concerned about what happens to them. They are just a testament that I was here.

RD: Thank you very much.

BZ: You're welcome. Thank you.

[tape ends.]


“Barbara Zygiel,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed June 23, 2024,